Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline 1906

After the Ritualism Riots of 1859-60, St George-in-the-East ceased to be a centre of controversy over ritual and doctrine: the focus shifted elsewhere. Even our 'advanced' daughter church of St Peter London Dock moved out of the eye of the storm, once the Revd A.H. Mackonochie had been moved on, to St Alban Holborn (where a prosecution was mounted in 1867 based on the Church Discipline Act of 1840, and renewed under the new act of 1874 - see below - reported as Mackonochie v. Lord Penzance (1881) 6 App Cas 424).

A growing number of parishes - especially, but not exclusively, in London and the south-east (hence the jibe 'London, Brighton and South Coast religion') - introduced patterns of worship, ceremonial, vesture and ritual practices that were fiercely contested by Protestant organisations, opposed by bishops, and mocked in the media [see Punch cartoons, right, from 1866 PERNICIOUS NONSENSE - and 1867 CHANGE FOR THE BETTER] - though many of them, both in slum areas and in fashionable parts of town, flourished as a result. In London, St Barnabas Pimlico and St Paul Knightsbridge had been two centres of ritualism, and although the incumbent of the latter, W.J.E. Bennett, had been forced out of office, the catholic movement continued to take ground. (Bennett continued his campaign from the parish of Frome-Selwood, with which a number of clergy of this parish had connections over the years, and was to an extent vindicated by the Court of Arches and Privy Council in 1872). Legal challenges turned on the controverted interpretation of the 'ornaments rubric' of the Book of Common Prayer, which ritualists argued not only allowed, but required, many of their practices.   Attempts to regulate were largely unsuccessful, and in 1867 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into and report upon different practices which had arisen, and varying interpretations which were put upon the rubrics, orders &c. It proved inconclusive, its only practical outcome being the approval of a revised scheme of readings for daily prayer (1871).

Archibald Tait, who as Bishop of London had played an ambiguous role in the Ritualism Riots in this parish, became Archbishop of Canterbury, and in 1874 introduced a private member's bill into the House of Lords which resulted in the controversial Public Worship Regulation Act, which created new procedures for complaint - involving, to the horror of many, secular courts; over the years it resulted in the imprisonment of five clergy, and lay behind the prosecution of the saintly Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln, on ritualism charges in 1888, reported as Read v. Bishop of Lincoln [1892] AC 644. In the closing years of the century, campaigns against 'ritual lawlessness' flared up again (perhaps most notoriously with the various editions of William Walsh's scurrilous Secret History of the Oxford Movement, published by the Church Association), and 'opinions' issued by the Archbishops against incense, processional lights and reservation of the sacrament proved ineffective; so another Royal Commission was established in 1904 to inquire into breaches or neglect of the Law relating to the conduct of Divine Service and to propose remedies.

It was an extraordinarily thorough piece of work, whose evidence, in four volumes with over 20,000 minuted questions, was presented two years later to both Houses of Parliament. They received submissions from scholars and interested parties, and considered detailed reports on services attended by 'spies', or at least what modern websites call 'mystery worshippers'. Its broad and unsurprising conclusion was that the law was too narrow to cope with the growing diversity of Anglican practice, and that the machinery for discipline had broken down; the text of report (but not the detailed evidence) can be seen here. But no particular action was taken (other than an end to prosecutions - though the 1874 Act technically remained on the books until 1965). The First World War intervened, and the next development was the abortive movement for Prayer Book reform in the 1920s (with the church's proposals rejected by Parliament in 1927 and 1928).

Report of local services
Some of the 'mystery worshippers' were members of various Protestant societies, and therefore both biased and often spectacularly incorrect in their descriptions of what they saw and described. Only two of 'our' churches were reported on, Christ Church Watney Street, and St Mary Cable Street, in both cases by William Norton Medlicott, who had been asked by the commission to visit various churches, mainly in and around London, and his descriptions are on the whole accurate. [Was he the father of his namesake, a distinguished academic historian (1900-87)?] There is also a report of an Ascension Day service at St Ethelburga Bishopsgate conducted by George Horlock, a former curate of St Paul Dock Street.

Clergy were invited to respond to the accounts of their services: some offered point-by-point rebuttals, others refused to engage with the process, but most - as in our two cases - agreed that the reports were broadly accurate, adding that their practices were well-established and lawful. As in Bryan King's time, it is certainly the case that most of what some complained of at the time is perfectly standard Anglican practice nowadays, in churches of nearly all traditions.

Christ Church, Watney Street

The 'chief' whom he mentions was Dr Gott, from the Leeds Clergy School, later Bishop of Truro.

St Mary Cable Street


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